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Michigan Senate Votes to Apply Open Records Law to Governor and Legislators

Breaking a years-long impasse, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to increase transparency for the governor and lawmakers. The bill still offers them some loopholes, however.

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist leads the 10 AM morning session with state senators on the floor at the Michigan State Capitol on May 9, 2024, in Lansing Michigan. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News/TNS)
Clarence Tabb Jr./TNS
The Michigan Senate voted Wednesday to subject the Legislature and the governor's office to the state's public records law, a significant vote for the upper chamber, where similar proposals have been repeatedly blocked for years.

The bills, if passed through the House and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, would end Michigan's status as one of only two states in the nation where lawmakers and the governor are exempt from public records requests.

The senators voted 36-2 to add themselves, state representatives in the House, the governor and her staff to being subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which makes records produced by public bodies open to inspection, with some exceptions.

"I cannot underscore enough how important this legislation is to change the institutions in Lansing and build trust between us and the constituents we serve," said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.

Moss sponsored the legislation with state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. The pair have been working on the legislation for years, dating back to when both were serving in the House.

Similar legislation has successfully passed through the House in recent years but was blocked repeatedly by Senate leadership. Democrats won control of the Senate for the first time in 40 years in November 2022.

Should the new Freedom of Information Act bills become law, the statute still provides generous loopholes for the governor and lawmakers that aren't available to other state agencies or local elected officials. Those exemptions include communications between lawmakers or the governor's office and constituents. For the governor, the legislation would exempt any email with any resident of the state other than gubernatorial appointees or lobbyists.

McBroom acknowledged Wednesday what was required under the proposed law was "fairly small scale," summing up the new responsibilities as a recognition of who is visiting lawmaker offices and the disclosure of communications with state departments and with lobbyists.

But McBroom said he was proud of the legislation and said the bills offered an opportunity to "provide additional clarity and transparency" about how the executive and legislative branches operate.

"Here we are with the opportunity to make a huge difference in transparency for Michigan," McBroom said.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to ensure the appointment of the FOIA coordinator working with the Legislature was appointed in a bipartisan manner. Though the amendment failed, Nesbitt supported the legislation.

"This package has been a long time coming," Nesbitt wrote on social media Wednesday. "While no bill is perfect, this bill does what is necessary to let the sunshine in. We are one step closer to providing Michigan citizens the government transparency they deserve."

Republican Sens. Sen. Jonathan Lindsey of Allen and Jon Bumstead of North Muskegon cast the two "no" votes. Neither senator explained their vote on the Senate floor Wednesday night.

The legislation comes nearly a decade after the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan the worst state in the country in 2015 for its systems to deter corruption.

Additionally, over the last year, multiple public figures, including two former House speakers, have been charged with crimes or accused of corruption.

Former House Speaker Rick Johnson pleaded guilty in April to taking bribes as the leader of the state's medical marijuana licensing board. And in April, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel brought 13 criminal charges against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield for the alleged misuse of nonprofit money. Additionally, Nessel is investigating the circumstances surrounding two grants sponsored by former House Speaker Jason Wentworth in 2022.

Those types of issues might have been avoided if a better culture of transparency had been fostered in Lansing and if the legislation hadn't been killed in the Senate again and again, Moss said.

"These scandals happened in the dark because they could happen in the dark," Moss said.

©2024 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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